accountabilitybloke (old blog)

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Some thoughts on the 2008 election campaign….

There are all sorts of opinions about last night’s debate, strong on both sides. That is an indication of one thing: neither Obama nor McCain screwed up enough to warrant being declared the loser.

Which means that the campaign itself — rather than the debates — will likely be the determining factor. And from a political science point-of-view there is an interesting contest going on between two completely distinct strategies (and I don’t mean tactics).

It is always tough to simplify such things effectively, but I would articulate the contest as “ground game” versus “air war.” Neither camp is foolish enough to do one or the other exclusively, but they seem to be stressing different ones.

The air war strategy has dominated in presidential elections at least since 1968, and was nicely introduced to us via Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President. (For those who are fans of Mad Men, the seeds of this are dramatized in some early episodes in references to the 1960 election.) Nixon essentially turned over the campaign to PR professionals (Haldeman and Erlichman being the most famous). Political scientist Darrell West has written THE BOOK on political air wars, and it is certainly the focus of most punditry as folks scrutinize each and every advert that is posted by the campaigns.

The ground game approach is the more traditional — some would say anachronistic — campaign strategy. It is the door-to-door, precinct level strategy that was the rationale and cause of forming political party organizations. It is alive and well at the local level (e.g., here and here), and in some communities is the only way to win office. It relies on the same logic as community organizing (of the Saul Alinsky type; here and here), and many would argue is irrelevant above the local level in a political age where mass media has become the major form of electioneering.

September 27th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

A perplexed cynic….

I am typically unfazed by what happens in US political campaigns — after all, I am a political scientist and I try to live up to my wife’s description of the field (“advanced cynicism and general despair”).

But at this moment (3 PM or so on Wednesday, September 24) I am baffled and perplexed. What in the world is the McCain campaign up to?

Win or lose, someone has ot to write an insider analysis of this someday — I mean a really “inside” the “insider” memoir, one that can give us some insight into their collective thinking. The Palin selection was interesting enough to warrant such a book, but the effort to postpone Friday’s debate (even though I was unlikely to watch it given other things on my plate) seems bizarre.

The only thing one can conjure up to make sense of this is as act of desperation given the latest polls. This might be the closest thing McCain folks have to an “October surprise” — and considering that they are coming to the realization that another 9/11 is unlikely to come their way over the next 40+ days, this might be their effort to create the moral equivalent. That is probably what Bush is going to try to do tonight in his address to the nation.

But if that is idea behind this cynical maneuver, they have a number of problems. First, there is the problem that JM is on record ten days ago noting that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. Second is the growing chorus of economists and politicians from both right and left who are raising questions about the plan and the pros/cons of letting the market do its thing without interference. Third is the general tone of public opinion which is not conducive to some manipulative effort to mobilize fear and anxiety. The “tone” or mood right now is more like anger and suspicion, and assuming the Obama folks don’t fall for the bait, all they have to do is point out just how manipulative this move is.

Must worrisome is that all this will backfire — and whatever justification there is for the “bailout” plan will be lost in the process….

September 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Indignation and politics — Obama’s tone….

Maureen Dowd‘s column this AM is an interesting dialogue in which she (with assist from Aaron Sorokin) is able to give advice via a rant by fictional “The West Wing” President Josiah Bartlet. I think they have it half right — what Obama needs to do, they imply, is to ratchet up the current, more angry tone of his campaign rhetoric. But I think they are misreading that tone….

In recent weeks Obama has shifted from inspirational orator to a classroom lecturer and, most recently, to a lecturer with the capacity to toss in some good one-liners that are certainly designed for the sound-bite hungry mass media. The “tonal” nature of these presentations is not (as Dowd/Sorokin think) anger, but rather indignation — a much more suitable approach for a person who cannot afford to be seen as angry if he is to succeed in this campaign.

The line between anger and indignation is often a very thin one. (Wikipedia, in fact, treats the two as synonymous.) McCain crossed that line to (I think) good effect for his campaign in his “I’d fire him” (in reference to SEC chair Cox) speech this past week. This is the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” approach made famous in Paddy Chayefsky‘s “Network” (listen here), and it is a real crowd pleaser when coming from McCain.

But Obama can’t really cross that line without seeming to fall off the perch he constructed that differentiated him from the widely held image of the “Raised Fist” angry black American (thanks to friend Domonic for highlighting that image…). Nor can he become too steeped in the image of the stand-up comic who can deliver a zinger and get a laugh — another image that knocks him off the elevated platform as the “leader (change) we need” that he has been able to construct over the months. Rather, he has to maintain a tone of serious indignation about what’s being said about him (something he is doing well at the moment with the well crafted one-liners) as well as what is happening in the country (“enough is enough” seems to have done the trick there).

The power of indignation and similar “reactive attitudes” is of serious consequence in our social and political lives — a view implied in 18th century Scottish Enlightenment examination of “moral sentiments” [David Hume (see here)Adam Smith (see here) and all that) and articulated most effectively by 20th century British philosopher PF Strawson (read here). It is central to our sense of being accountable — and drives the central role of accountability in politics, governance and all sorts of others social endeavors. For present purposes, it can be used to sharpen a campaign that needs to keep moving forward….

September 21st, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

McCain’s performance as turning point?

Well, the presidential campaign entered a new stage tonight at the Saddleback Forum. Rick Warren played an effective host to the two candidates, and what we saw was the campaign we thought we would get from the outset. It is going to be a tough one for Obama…

Some observations: McCain has demonstrated why he is so effective at town meetings and formats that are not “staged” and why reporters loved riding on the “Straight Talk Express” bus in New Hampshire and getting “straight” answers. That is the McCain that came out this evening. Yes, solicitous and pandering to host and audience; yes, a tendency to subtle forms of braggadocio about his life experiences. And the true Reaganite, anti-government conservatism really comes through in the content of his answers. For all that potentially negative content, it was an impressive performance.

Obama, on the other hand, treated it as if he was back talking to Charlie Rose across the round table. Good for that context when you are selling your book, but certainly did not come off as strongly as McCain did politically. He needs to adapt his style to campaign mode!

(1) Based on this performance McCain gets traction for the coming week until the end of the Democratic Convention and pulls ahead in the polls — perhaps substantially.

(2) Obama will get bump during convention week, but they need to rethink their approach. Dealing with racism, Clintonism, etc is one thing — but dealing with a reinvigorated “straight talk”, Reagan-like McCain is another.

(3) If they’re smart, the McCain campaign realizes what just happened and shifts back to a campaign that relies less on the TV ad spots and attacks (the “Rick Davis” approach) and goes for more formats like the one Warren provided this evening.

Going to be interesting to watch from a political science point of view. I personally am not looking forward to a replay of the Reagan years or the Cold War, but after tonight the chances of that are looking stronger than before McCain’s performance.

August 16th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments